Joshua Yates, director of Public Works, city of Birmingham in Alabama, oversees the main divisions of waste operations, horticulture operations, construction operations, facility services, animal control, code enforcement, and other functions.
With a 630-person department and $45 million operational budget, Yates faces a new challenge every day.
He began his government career in Tuscaloosa, AL, where he experienced firsthand a natural disaster that destroyed and damaged a major portion of the city in 2011. Yates, a 40 Under 40 award winner, discusses new public works initiatives in Birmingham, and shares some of his experiences and lessons learned during his career.
This interview has been edited for length.
Waste360: What are some recent initiatives or programs that you have worked on in your role as Director of Public Works?
Yates: We do not charge for waste pickup across our 100,000 households or 200,000 residents. It was a very antiquated system, where people just put bags on the curb, and our crews went by to pick it up, twice a week.
We've already accomplished phase one in a pilot program to establish uniform cart programs and automated side loaders to change the way we pick up garbage across Birmingham, to really get into the 21st century here.
Waste360: What are some unique challenges that the Public Works department had to address in response to the pandemic?
Yates: One of the biggest challenges is the lack of staffing, lack of people. We had some capability, from a city perspective of people working from home, but in our department, everybody is pretty much boots on the ground, so there really wasn't an opportunity to do that. It caused a lot of vacancies and employee shortages. We were really short on operators, which is CDL-class operators, and that hurt us quite a bit.
We were also short on staffing, just in terms of refuse collectors, or the general labor pool that we were looking for—we had a real tough time trying to get those positions filled. Since the pandemic we're sitting in a lot better position now than we were, but that's something that we had to recover from.
Waste360: Can you talk about the beginning of your public works career working with Tuscaloosa?
Yates: My first job, I worked as an intern for the city engineer for the City of Tuscaloosa. When I finished my internship and graduated college, they didn't want to see me go, so they asked me to stay on board, and I worked in many, various divisions in our engineering department in Tuscaloosa. I was an environmental compliance coordinator. I was the storm drains engineer, and I was the watershed manager. I led several millions of dollars in capital improvement projects, and had a vast, I guess, knowledge base, based off of all the different roles we filled in Tuscaloosa.
I spent eight years in Tuscaloosa and experienced four or five different career [opportunities]. It was all within the engineering department, but it was different levels of managing maintenance staff, managing permitting and inspection, managing environmental compliance. And then storm drainage management: water quality, water quantity, things of that nature in regards to ADM and EPA requirements.
Waste360: You saw the challenges in the aftermath of the tornado in 2011. What were some of those challenges that you had to work with the team to address?
Yates: In Tuscaloosa, the tornado of 2011 was unbelievable. We would actually go into work and then after work we would go into these areas to help cut trees off of people's houses and open up roads. At that time, I was not directly invested in the Public Works department. I was primarily working in an environmental capacity as environmental compliance. We had to map out and identify locations where hazardous materials may have been stored. The tornado was roughly a mile-and-a-half wide, and you can't make any place out that was left. You had to go on a map and identify environmental hazards.
If you think about cleaners with a lot of Clorox, or some sort of chemical spills through these areas, or look at a roofing company, and some of the products they use that could be very hazardous, identifying those locations, where those type of hazardous spills could occur, was a big project we were working on right after the tornado. Then, just working on the rebuilding following that was pretty intense.
Waste360: What do you think is something that you learned from those challenges of helping the community during that recovery?
Yates: I would just say that most citizens just want you to treat them with respect, and also provide the utmost customer service. That's a big portion of what we do in Birmingham. The mayor's theme is “putting people first,” and that's the biggest thing.
People just want to be heard, and they want to be able to experience the services that go along with any type of governmental operations. If they're paying taxes, they expect services from it. It’s really being able to empathize with our citizens, and being able to change and adapt to meet the demands of what your citizens need to be able to experience a high quality of life.